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Thursday, March 26, 2009

NASCAR Remembers Its Roots

The National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) will return to its roots this weekend with the running of the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 in Martinsville, Virginia.

The last original NASCAR sanctioned track still hosting a Cup Series event, the Martinsville Speedway is the shortest track on tour at .526 miles. The Bristol, Tennessee track, which hosted last week’s race, is the second shortest at .533.

Constructed more than a decade before the Daytona International Speedway, the Martinsville Speedway hosted its first NASCAR sanctioned race on July 4, 1948 and a year later was one of eight tracks to host a race in the initial year of what was then called the Strictly Stock Series and is now known as the Sprint Cup Series. After hosting one race in 1949, Martinsville has hosted two Sprint Cup races every year since 1950. Other than being paved in 1955, the track configuration has not changed from its original design. The track originally had seating for 750 spectators, but today has a capacity of 60,000.

While short tracks played an important role in laying the foundation for the success of NASCAR, as the national and international appeal of the sport has increased over the last two decades, a number of smaller tracks with longstanding traditions have been removed from the Sprint Cup schedule in favor of larger tracks in locations that expand the exposure of the sport to new audiences. Bristol, Martinsville and the Richmond International Speedway (.75 miles) are the only tracks remaining on the Sprint Cup schedule with a lap distance under a mile.

Richmond hosted its first race in 1953 and has held two NASCAR Sprint Cup events every year since 1959. Originally a half mile track, it expanded to .75 miles in 1988 and has a spectator capacity of just over 112,000.

The Bristol Motor Speedway was completed in 1961 and has hosted two NASCAR Sprint Cup races every year since. The Speedway began with 18,000 seats for its initial race on July 30, 1961 and has undergone a number of grandstand renovations to increase capacity to its current level of 160,000.

Though NASCAR made its initial foray into the Mid-West and West Coast markets in the 1950s, it took the sport decades to finally gain a solid foothold outside the traditional Southern hotbed. Since 1988, NASCAR has brought the NASCAR experience to strategic locations across the country including Chicago, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Phoenix, Sonoma, Fort Worth and Las Vegas.

The price for this nationalization of the sport was the reduction of NASCAR races at traditional home tracks, primarily in the South. While Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond have managed to survive, other places such as Rockingham, North Wilkesboro and Nashville did not.

However, there has been talk that Martinsville could be the next casualty of the nationalization of NASCAR. Because the region around Martinsville has never had a booming economy, even in good economic times the track has struggled to sell out despite having one of the lowest spectator capacities on the circuit.

While the global economic crisis might at first blush seem to increase the pressure on NASCAR to move at least one of the Martinsville races, I contend that the opposite is true.

Though the overall fan base has grown over the last decade, the greatest concentration of loyal die-hard fans remains in the South and specifically in rural areas of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Many of these fans have been life-long NASCAR lovers and cherish the history and tradition of the sport.

As the last original NASCAR track, Martinsville represents an important connection to the past and at the same time can also be a key part of the future for the sport. NASCAR generally has done a very good job walking the tight rope of embracing the past while also looking toward the future. At a time when they are needed most, many loyal fans could become disenchanted with NASCAR if it eliminates the annual trips to Martinsville.

Rather than consider dropping Martinsville from the schedule, I hope NASCAR will instead recognize the value of its oldest track and ensure that the Martinsville Speedway remains an important part of the annual circuit for decades to come.

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